Before the 49ers played the Jets last September, Jets head coach Rex Ryan talked about Vernon Davis as perhaps the best tight end in football.
After three games of the 2012 season, Davis already had 13 catches for four touchdowns. And, he was coming off a great postseason performance in which he had seven catches – including the game-winner – in a wild victory over the New Orleans Saints and a two-touchdown game against the Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
“If you’re not looking at Vernon Davis, what – are you kidding me?” Ryan told the New York Post. “The guy runs a 4.3, the best tight end, the No. 1 tight end in football, in my opinion. You got that (Rob) Gronkowski kid, but this guy is a 4.3 speed guy.”
Yet less than a year later, is the “best tight end” now a wide receiver?
During the 49ers’ recently completed mandatory three-day minicamp, Davis lined up almost exclusively as a wide receiver. With the injury to Michael Crabtree that likely will keep the team’s No. 1 wideout off the field for the entire 2013 season, San Francisco of course is looking for players to produce at the position.
“The Niners probably need him to play more wideout because their best receiver, Anquan Boldin, is a much better slot receiver than outside receiver at this stage of his career,” wrote Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “During team drills, Boldin lined up in the slot the vast majority of time.
“The 49ers need an outside receiver who can stretch the field, like Randy Moss and Mario Manningham did last season. Davis may be the best candidate on the roster to fill that role this season.”
Yes, it’s probable that Davis will be positioned at times as a wide receiver this coming season. But a full time switch? Unlikely.
For one thing, offensive coordinator Greg Roman likes to get creative. Getting Davis reps at wide receiver gives the 49ers more options, and his size and speed no doubt would give even big cornerbacks a problem. Davis should be able to overpower almost any corner.
But Davis also is an outstanding blocker, so it seems unlikely that he would be moved outside full time. His blocking is a key component in the success of the team’s power running game, and rookie tight end Vance McDonald has yet to prove he can block in the NFL.
Plus, the 49ers have several young receivers who may emerge from summer training camp and the exhibition games to win playing time and a chance to have a breakout year. Last year’s No. 1 pick, A.J. Jenkins, has reportedly made great strides this offseason. Plus, Ricardo Lockette and rookie Quinton Patton have gotten good reviews. If one or two of the wide receiver candidates prove they can be consistent targets for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, there would be no reason for Davis to switch positions.
The more likely scenario is that the Niners just want Davis to be comfortable playing outside and be able to use him in various sets and formations to throw a curveball at the defense.
Though Davis sometimes gets overlooked in the 49ers offense, he can be a difference-maker as a tight end. In three postseason games last season, including the Super Bowl, Davis had 12 catches for 254 yards and a TD.
To Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, Davis’ reps at wideout in minicamp are just a reflection of Roman being Roman.
“Roman always is looking for matchup problems,” he wrote. “Davis creates mismatches no matter where he’s lined up.”